Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Stories.

I haven’t posted about my Russian reading in a while. It’s not that I’ve slacked off on the reading, or that the material hasn’t been good — far from it: I’ve read Ostrovsky’s comedy Bednost ne porok [Poverty Is No Crime] (a rich merchant wants to marry his daughter to an old roué even though she and his clerk Mitya love each other); Tolstoy’s Otrochestvo [Boyhood] (Nikolenka, the author’s stand-in, moves to Moscow and puts away childish things); Turgenev’s “Mumu” (a very famous sentimental story about the deaf-mute serf Gerasim, whose aged mistress gets angry at his dog Mumu), Mesyats v derevne [A Month in the Country] (considered the best of his plays: a young, handsome teacher throws a household into chaos), and Postoyaly dvor [The Inn] (Akim loses his inn because he is a serf and the legal owner is his mistress, who is persuaded to turn it over to a charming villain); Pisemsky’s Vinovata li ona? [Is she guilty?] (Lidiya Nikolaevna, forced to marry the drunken oaf Ivan Kuzmich, is attracted to the handsome and attentive Kurdyumov); and Herzen’s S togo berega [From the Other Shore] (essays showing Herzen’s frustration and anger at the violent repression of the 1848 rebellions and the satisfaction of the bourgeoisie, and containing some of Herzen’s best writing), and all of them made for good and pleasurable reading.

But now that I’ve finished Tolstoy’s Sevastopolskie rasskazy [Sevastopol stories] (originally collected in 1856 as Voennye rasskazy [War stories]), about the Crimean War, I feel the need to post. The first, “Sevastopol in December,” is short and efficient: written in the second person, it takes you on a tour of the city from the harbor via the dressing station (where the wounded soldiers make you briefly depressed) and up through the park-like Boulevard to the heavily attacked 4th Bastion. The second, “Sevastopol in May,” is twice as long and somewhat rambling; it follows several officers and their fears and ambitions during an attack, but you don’t care about any of them — they’re not so much characters as personifications of various attitudes Tolstoy wants to represent. The third, “Sevastopol in August,” is as long as the first two combined; it represents a giant leap forward and for the first time shows us the mature writer who created War and Peace (for which it serves, in retrospect, as a trial balloon). In it, Mikhail Kozeltsov returns to Sevastopol after recovering from a wound and finds his younger brother Volodya, frightened but patriotic, eager to join the fight — as it turns out, on the eve of the city’s fall. They spend time together and then go their separate ways, Mikhail back to the company he commands and Volodya to the artillery unit where he will try to put his theoretical knowledge to use; I won’t describe any more of the plot, I’ll just quote a passage that’s a precursor of the section of War and Peace I analyzed in one of my favorite LH posts. Mikhail and Volodya are crossing the pontoon bridge from the northern suburb into the besieged city itself:

Братья прошли первый понтон, дожидаясь повозки, и остановились на втором, который местами уже заливало водой. Ветер, казавшийся слабым в поле, здесь был весьма силен и порывист; мост качало, и волны, с шумом ударяясь о бревна и разрезаясь на якорях и канатах, заливали доски. Направо туманно-враждебно шумело и чернело море, отделяясь бесконечно ровной черной линией, от звездного, светло-сероватого в слиянии горизонта; и далеко где-то светились огни на неприятельском флоте; налево чернела темная масса нашего корабля и слышались удары волн о борта его; виднелся пароход, шумно и быстро двигавшийся от Северной.

The brothers crossed the first pontoon while waiting for the wagon, and halted on the second, which was already flooded with water in places. The breeze, which had seemed weak inland, was very strong and gusty here; the bridge swayed, and the waves, beating noisily against the beams and cutting at the cables and anchors, flooded the planks. To the right the sea, foggy and hostile, roared and showed black, separated by an endless level black line from the starry horizon, a blend of light and gray, and far off somewhere lights gleamed on the enemy fleet; to the left the dark mass of one of our ships showed black, and the beating of the waves against its side could be heard; a steamer could be seen, noisily and swiftly moving from Severnaya [the northern suburb].

The similarities with the later passage are clear: the description of the weather and landscape (or in this case seascape) counterpoised to evidence of the enemy our protagonists are going to meet. But the differences are telling; here it’s all jumbled together without apparent order other than turning your head from right to left, the verbs of perception I described in the previous post are of all sorts (чернело ‘showed black,’ слышались ‘were heard,’ виднелся ‘was seen’) as opposed to the drumbeat repetition of the latter, and the enemy makes his appearance in the middle rather than being saved for a dramatic finish. It’s this sort of thing that makes following an author from the start so enjoyable.


  1. I am truly amazed by your interest in Russian literature. By the way, Бедность — не порок, which might be better translated as poverty is not a vice, is part of a somewhat longer Russian saying (Ostrovsky loved giving his plays titles from popular sayings), which ends with а вдвое хуже = it’s twice as bad. Which, I would guess, sums up the whole of Ostrovsky’s play if not the whole genre of Russian fiction sprung force from Gogol’s Overcoat.

  2. Бедность — не порок, which might be better translated as poverty is not a vice

    Yes, but I was using the title of the published translation. (One thing that’s struck me as I make my way through the decades is how much has been translated, far more than I would have expected!)


  1. […] miss Languagehat tracing a line from the earliest Tolstoi writing about the siege of Sevastopol to Tolstoi writing something similar differently in War and […]

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